"Unbuilt Cincinnati'
CAC exhibit chronicles city's lost opportunities - and close calls

Sunday, August 16, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Canal reconstruction along Pete Rose Way..
(Tony Jones photo)
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The "Unbuilt Cincinnati" exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center is like surfing through Cincinnati's psyche without a wet suit. Who would have thought the buildings we haven't built here could tell so much about us as a city.

It also identifies plenty of lethal mines to be avoided if we want to see imaginative design in our new Reds ballpark, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a new School for the Creative and Performing Arts and new Contemporary Arts Center.

"Unbuilt Cincinnati" continues at the Contemporary Arts Center, 115 E. Fifth St., through Aug. 30.
  • Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
  • Admission: $3.50 general; $2 students and seniors.
  • Call: 721-0390.
  • An entire gallery is devoted to Fountain Square West projects that bit the dust. Some architects' drawings, models or videos inspire soaring relief: Thank God that was never built. Others evoke an acute sense of lost opportunity. One example: The rapid transit funded by a doomed 1916 bond issue of $6 million. Born: 1916. Died: 1928.

    One nagging impression lingers: Something has gone awry in our public decision-making. It needs to be quickly corrected as we advance into one of the most massive building booms this city has ever seen.

    David Scheer, president of the Cincinnati Forum for Architecture and Urbanism that assembled this exhibit, writes that oversight boards and City Council are no substitute for a community passionately interested in good public design. It's up to us, he says, to create this city together. That includes Northern Kentucky.

    Kohn Penderson Fox's model for Fountainplace.
    (Tony Jones photo)
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    Great architects need great clients -- and great communities. Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham gave the famous dictum: Make no small plans. Cincinnati hasn't lacked for grand ideas. But successful projects like Carew Tower or University of Cincinnati's new buildings need financing, daring, timing, strong public support and lots of luck.

    The contrast between what was envisioned for Fountain Square West and what we ended up with is stark. It was no small feat to salvage a stylish new Lazarus, Tiffany's and Brooks Brothers; Fifth - Third Bank may yet add an office tower. But this was "the most valuable downtown real estate in the Midwest." Two designs for that site, one in the late 1980s and another in 1990, called for towers nearly 50 stories high.

    Skyscrapers are not the only measure of an architecturally daring city. Cincinnati over the years had the good sense to stick with a human scale. Yet a 1994 plan for just a five-story Crystal Forest on top of a new Lazarus lingered for months, then failed by one vote in Council. A majority of council members decided Cincinnati didn't want an urban botanical attraction. So we ended up with three stories of retail.

    An "Unbuilt Cincinnati" intro says a city square belongs to all of us, and its architecture is a reflection of us all. Well, then, the face reflected by our square sure isn't daring or bold.

    1,234-foot-high Millennium monument proposed for Newport, Ky.
    (Tony Jones photo)
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    City plans dating back many decades show various riverfront sites for a new football stadium or Reds ballpark or both, and here we are in 1998 -- still bitterly divided over a ballpark site. The riverfront has been chosen by Hamilton County commissioners, but now it may be put to a vote in November. Public officials didn't hesitate to go to voters to pay for the stadiums, but now some want to keep the public from voting on where their money will be spent. Here we go again with closely held, limited-access decisions.

    More than a few projects documented in "Unbuilt Cincinnati" were ideas whose time came and went, debated to death. In Cleveland, Portland and other comeback cities, citizens and business leaders get involved -- to make things happen. As my brother-in-law, Boston architect Robert Hsiung puts it, "It's easy to say no."

    Cincinnati has become expert at death-by-indecision, stalling or sabotage by special interests or back-room power-brokers.

    It takes leadership to "sell" innovative new design. The new $25 million CAC building for Sixth & Walnut could be another test case for what's buildable in Cincinnati.

    Crystal Forest
    Crystal Forest planned for Fountain Square West.
    (Tony Jones photo)
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    Cincinnati Council was about to stall, yet again, on acquiring the land for CAC, but after a CAC appeal, voted unanimously to spend $4.5 million. New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp already had raved about London architect Zaha Hadid's design for the new CAC. Ms. Hadid's CAC design is as "unpredictable" as CAC shows.

    "Cincinnati is perceived by some as intolerant or slow to accept change," said CAC director Charles Desmarais . "That image isn't good for a community. By creating this remarkable public work of art in itself, it will demonstrate to the rest of the world a new Cincinnati looking to grow, and will symbolize the progressive vision that I know is here."

    By showing us what might have been, the inspiration of "Unbuilt Cincinnati" is to make great design happen in our time.

    Tony Lang is an Enquirer editorial writer. Call him at 768-8528, E-mail: tlang@enquirer.com or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.

    Public should get involved

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